Conservative Party Ed Miliband Nicola Sturgeon

The Daily Telegraph's 'leak' against Nicola Sturgeon backing David Cameron is only the start of Election Spin Season

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By Stephen Lepitak, -

April 6, 2015 | 6 min read

The fallout over the Telegraph’s story on Saturday, ‘Sturgeon's secret backing for Cameron’ has exposed the inner workings of spin within government as a continually nasty and unforgiving element of politics that continues to use the press for its own gain when it suits.

After Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Nicola Sturgeon was seen by many as the surprise winner of Thursday evening’s Leader’s Debate, despite protestations from other participants claiming victory themselves, it would have been somewhat naïve of Scotland’s first minister not to expect some form of response. Perhaps news that she ‘secretly’ supports the re-election of a Conservative government by one of the UK’s largest selling newspapers was probably not on the drawing board however.

I have asked a few PR professionals working within the UK’s political sphere for their thoughts on the memo leak in which she is alleged to have made the statement of preference for David Cameron‘s continuance, and most, perhaps wisely, have declined to go on record.

Lobbyist and Conservative blogger, Lionel Zetter told me that he thought the story was “potentially dangerous” for the SNP, adding; “The one thing which could derail their general election campaign in Scotland is the notion that they might prefer a Tory government in Westminster.”

The Telegraph is a Conservative supporting title, so that the leak was given to them is no major strategic shift by government. Although the newspaper’s speed to update its story online, despite the first minister’s denials and direct Tweets to the reporters can be questioned, in a world of real-time reporting.

The consul general has also denied that Sturgeon made any such statement over her preference of which party was elected into Downing Street.

The newspaper has now updated the story fully to take into account Sturgeon’s retorts and admits in its final paragraph that the leak is likely to have been made in order to reverse her growing popularity following her showing during the ITV-television debate.

Public relations consultant and CIPR Trustee, John Brown was more forthright in how he viewed the matter of the "leak". Brown doubts we’ll see the ambassador’s report to the French government about the meeting with Sturgeon and the other Scottish ministers present, he did indicate that the pace of the rebuttal by those featured within the story helped dent the piece's credulity.

Brown explained his own understanding of such a meeting and the most likely scenario of the situation; “Clearly there was a discussion between the ambassador/consul general and the first minister/other ministers on the election scenarios, given the polls are showing SNP likely to win upwards of 40 seats in Scotland (many taken from Labour). In such a discussion various things are said and there were three ministers present each of whom may have different views on the possible scenarios. The 40-plus seat scenario denies Labour any chance of having a majority or even be the largest party.”

He also expressed his believe that whatever the election outcome, the SNP will still be winners, outlining two likely scenarios; “A Labour minority government where they say they [SNP] will hold Labour on a vote-by-vote issue against austerity measures, anti-Trident and implementing the Smith commission as more powers to Scotland or a Conservative minority government, with little or no MP representation in Scotland and a promise of a referendum likely to take Scotland out of Europe possibly against its will. The latter will hasten, I think, the break-up of the UK following the Scottish Parliament elections of next year and more SNP wins, if they handle the next year well.”

Brown also claimed that he thought this upcoming election was “the most difficult ever to predict” and that every party, including the SNP, would have compromises to make and “dilemmas” to face ahead of the voters taking to the polls.

Journalists also reporting on the story of the "leak’ and what was actually said, not just those working for the Telegraph, have faced criticism and claims that they are taking sides, as the BBC’s James Cook has found, while attempting to get to the bottom of the matter.

Again, Sturgeon was astute enough to tweet Cook's defence - perhaps in hope of making an ally for the road ahead, as unlikely as that is to be the outcome.

Cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood has since launched an inquiry to determine the exact conversation.

While we may never truly know which words that were spoken by Sturgeon, if any, to cause this confusion, what is absolutely guaranteed is that more and more ‘leaks’ and underhanded communications strategies will be green lit in the coming weeks ahead of 7 May.

Maybe it’s time to rewatch the entire run of The Thick of It to fully remind ourselves of just how few prisoners are taken in Westminster when there are votes to be won. As Ed Milliband saw on Saturday when his own debate notes were ‘leaked’ - it’s very easy to do effectively.

Stephen Lepitak is editor of The Drum.

Conservative Party Ed Miliband Nicola Sturgeon

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